WASHINGTON - A group of 15 small-business owners gathered on the steps of the U.S. Treasury last week to protest the department's insistence on collecting stiff prepayment penalties for loans made in the early 1980s under a Small Business Administration program.

"The federal government is a loan shark," said Harry Whittelsey, president of an Islandia, N.Y., telecommunications firm that employs 55 people. Mr. Whittelsey borrowed $360,000 at an 11.75% interest rate in 1983. He now wants to clear his outstanding $199,000 balance, but faces a $78,000 prepayment penalty.

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